The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Guy Booth

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Guy Booth

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Summary: Sue realised that The Arthur Moreau Story by Guy Booth could be read on two levels - and that both were terrifying. When Guy popped in to Bookbag Towers there were questions to which we needed answers!
Date: 1 January 2013
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Sue realised that The Arthur Moreau Story by Guy Booth could be read on two levels - and that both were terrifying. When Guy popped in to Bookbag Towers there were questions to which we needed answers!

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Guy Booth: It’s a neat question: actually, as an artist I never close my eyes: I look at everything in as much detail as possible. As a student of Architecture, in that great city, Liverpool, I trained myself to ‘look’ at Life from ‘A to Z’. I learnt to see ‘how we are’.

My readers are you: I target no specific readership group. You can be 16 (I wouldn’t give The Arthur Moreau Story to a younger person) to 106. I see myself as a ‘Storyteller’, as of ancient times. I come into town, you all hear about it, everybody gets together, sits in a big semi-circle: and I tell you a story.

You will venture into the depths of my imagination. I aim to astonish, to thrill, to put the fear of God into you, to delight you ... and so on. I lead you by the hand into a palace of Dreams ... a forest of Fears. All really good stories include our daily round, the silly mistakes we make and laugh about, the humour of our lives. Life is fairly ordinary: I want to entertain you with the extraordinary side of the business.

GB: A wedding in France: August 1998, Bordeaux - the lunchtime guests had drunk the place dry. How does that link with Arthur Moreau’s funeral? It was the car journey to the wedding that inspired the ‘kick-off’ idea. We stopped for the night at a hotel in the town of La Roche-sur-Yon, the Emperor Napoleon’s headquarters in that region of France to curb the antics of bolshie locals. We came home and I thought nothing more of the occasion.

At the time, late 1998, I was two years into my attempt to become a writer. The mission was not going well; my television direction was also at a low ebb. It happened that I was reading an amazing book by historian, Alan Bullock, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. The book gave me a horrible understanding of just how hideous those men really were. I looked at the biographies of other dictators. I didn’t get hooked: I wanted to understand something of why such monsters succeed.

About a month after the French wedding trip I had a clear idea for a full length story. It goes like this: An ordinary Englishman is invited to a funeral in France and turns up. The body appears in a glass coffin. That’s it! The town square of La Roche-sur-Yon glimmered in the background.

My first working title was, The Glass Casket. But I found that an object presents problems for a story. The object (a class casket, a sword in a stone) must get the characters to perform the action of the story. So who’s in the casket? Harmless, charming Second Hand book dealer, Arthur Moreau. The ordinary man invited to the funeral becomes Johnny Debrett, Moreau’s young business partner before Arthur retired to France. Nice: but what triggers the mystery? Sir Frederick Appleby is certain that Moreau was a criminally insane maniac, founder of a weird terrorist sect.

Wow! You have to go to that funeral: I was fascinated.

That is how it all began. From a real wedding in France to the fictional sinking of The Eocratic in the Atlantic Ocean on July 18th, 1994. The jigsaw puzzle was out of the box.

  • BB: I sensed a real delight in the glories of architecture and design, along with a dig at how uncomfortable rooms designed by architects can be, which made me laugh! There's a lot of knowledge that goes well beyond research. What's behind this?

GB: I come from a family of architects. We never ‘talk-shop’ at home but are always interested in every aspect of design. Building styles, interiors, furniture, the History of Architecture and Civil Engineering, of fashion. I am also interested in printing and graphic design: Presentation is all.

A dress shop, a 1930s concert hall, Blackpool Tower, a seaside bungalow, a gothic cathedral, a country hedgerow, a kitchen blender: all of interest. When I walk down a city street I read it like a conductor reads an Orchestral Score.

In my stories ambience and architecture are vital: the reader must be in that place. What characters are wearing, how well or badly, tells the reader much about them. Peter Tyndale’s ridiculously uncomfortable, hyper expensive City penthouse; the detail of his honed torso almost leaping out of the hand tailored executive shirt, gives the reader a feeling that we shall meet this strangely sadistic ‘Public School Hero’ again. Alfred Hitchcock, talking of his famous films, said, “Every frame counts”.

  • BB: Arthur Moreau is loathsome AND criminally insane. Is he inspired by anyone you know? How do you create your characters?

GB: Arthur is a very creepy commodity: of all the characters in the story, Moreau is the man I know least! He is an essence rather than a personality. The essence of evil and corruption. I didn’t start-out with the idea of portraying a genocidal maniac. Arthur came gradually into focus after Johnny Debrett, Thomas and Sir Frederick.

A wonderful ‘Old Queen’ ... yes, Arthur was. I have known some, they suit stories. I remember a party in Hong Kong around 1982. A very senior person ‘at Law’ arrived sluiced in 1920s ladies’ underwear and wearing a Bowler hat. The next morning the same person had his Chinese chauffeur stop a magnificent Rolls to wind the window down and wave convivially, saying merrily - he was now wearing Morning Dress with the Bowler hat - I had just come out of a bookshop - Hello! Wasn’t it a marvellous party last night? I agreed, the Rolls slid-on towards the Hong Kong Central Courts.

Arthur Moreau was much more than a wonderful ‘Old Queen’. He vied with Hitler, Stalin and Mao: a monster that controlled and poisoned our lives. Moreau is not inspired by anyone I know. He is a collage of horror created out of gold brocade, blood-soaked bandages, and slime.

Having made Moreau seem harmless, how was I to convey the other side of his insane personality? Not easy, but the reader must be brought to understand so bluntly and brutally that you rock back in your chair with revulsion. Three or four ideas were scrapped before the ‘hand-written notes’ sequence appeared.

It took over twenty re-writes to give Arthur’s notes an authentic warped ‘feel’. Getting into his mind took some doing. Yuk! Interestingly, conveying in prose the act of sexual intercourse or murder, the state of lunacy, demands a skilful technique.

How do I create my characters? In four ways:

  1. Principal characters that emerge with the central idea for a story at the outset. Johnny Debrett came into focus pretty much complete in personality and appearance at the start. He is the good-hearted, well intentioned, refined cosmopolitan. Upper Class - his father was a German aristocrat, his mother a Yorkshire born opera singer - but by no means snobbish. We all get-on with Johnny. Unique in himself, Johnny has a ‘root’ character that stems from a living person: the root is based upon a performance of an English actor portraying the principal character of a novel by an English author, as that novel was adapted as a movie by an English film director. Note, I say, the performance, not the actor himself. I leave you to guess.
  2. Characters that the storyline demands, as I write. The Kadets are the best example for The Arthur Moreau Story. When the story began I had no idea of an artificial race and the Friedemann Five Year Progenic Cycle. The storyline began to sag. A mystery, yes, but the mystery didn’t carry enough ‘power of fascination’. OK, change the funeral location from a little old church near Dieppe to the big, ugly basilica of La Roche-sur-Yon. Call the town Yonroche. Who would Johnny find in the basilica? It was packed with identical young men, all ‘film-star’ handsome and the few women there were blokes in drag. The casket was out of this world and the priests were Drag Queens. What the heck’s going-on! ... Exactly what Johnny is thinking. I stopped the story and invented the Friedemann Five Year Progenic Cycle, designed the Kadet Precincts, dreamt-up the Château of St. Christophe, and got back to the keyboard. I now sensed that the story had allegorical potential: the kadets represent our Society that has been leeched of all individuality and is made to conform unquestioningly to a Politically Correct lifestyle: the Kadet Precincts are systems of State-run hypocrisy. When people say to me, What an imagination you have, Guy! I reply, Look out of the window.
  3. Characters that ‘walk into the room’ as I write. Situations often demand characters ‘on tap’. Jock, the steward on the Eocratic is a good example. He wasn’t planned, he takes charge of Johnny as he boards the ship. The Eocratic, by the way, is based upon the 1930s White Star liner Britannic, its interiors inspired by Cunard’s Campania, launched 1892, a French palace and King George VI’s railroad carriage, preserved in Glasgow. Jock is typical of old time stewards that I remember way back. Stanley Casper is the character that literally walks into Jo Debrett’s library to meet Johnny. He was created in 2005 because I needed three heroes. Johnny and Thomas as a duo put limitations on the edited story. Like Batman and Robin, you cannot have them separated. With a third hero you can chuck one in a dungeon and let the other two to sort it out. Dumas was no fool with The Three Musketeers.
  4. Characters closely based or wholly modelled upon actual people, living or dead. Rare with me, and beware risking libel. Nina and Jeff Burdet are two friends alive today in Minneapolis where Gracewood is located. Sir Frederick Appleby combines two people I know, one a great friend - sadly dead - who had a blind eye he would wipe with a silk square. Ramona is a tribute to Elizabeth Taylor and another lovely lady I’ve known very well indeed.

Characters, once created, constantly do things without my leave: much more interesting things than I plan for them. When this happens I follow them round with a notebook and a camera. Who, then, writes the story? I sometimes wonder.

  • BB: Why do you think it is that the criminally insane can rise to positions of such power? We either elect them or allow them to flourish in their chosen professions. Why do we never learn?

GB: We never learn because Tyranny is part of Human Nature. We love to be bullied, threatened, belittled, have our homes destroyed by war ... and there are born all the time tyrants that - somehow - get themselves into positions of supreme power.

The higher levels of petty tyranny fascinate me. Faceless civil servants enjoying power that can change our lives while the ‘System’ of State artfully conceals their decisions from ordinary people. Worse, those employed to cook-up the Propaganda served out to us that is nothing less than deception varnished as Truth.

A central theme of The Arthur Moreau Story is the insidious nature of ‘Control’. Even Sir Frederick, who is something like God, never knows what is going-on. Friedemann’s serum is silently destroying millions, the Kadets infiltrate the highest realms of State and Society. Nobody knows! When Johnny, Thomas and Stanley witness Atlas One, they are told they have imagined it; Stanley is considered insane.

One of the reasons why we never learn is that there exist in every State system officials that make sure we never learn. Read my story.

  • BB: The Arthur Moreau Story can, of course, be read as a horror story with a mystery at its centre. It can't have been easy to combine the two levels effectively. How long did it take you to write the book?

GB: Net time span, a year. This included stopping to invent the Kadets. There was also a ‘learning curve’. Do I get up at five in the morning and start by six? Do I set a target of so many words a day? Do I edit as I write? For me the answer to all three is no.

Combining two levels, a horror story and a mystery. I do not find this difficult. Perhaps this is due to my work as an architect. When you design a building you have to think on many different levels simultaneously.

What I did find difficult was to edit the completed typescript in early 2000. The draft totalled 183,000 words; that’s a BIG story. In fact it was three stories in one. Two stories had to be ripped out of it but I didn’t know how. I then discovered the jungle we call The Publishing Industry. After many rejections from Literary Agencies, despondent, I put the typescript in a drawer. It was to stay there for five years.

Writing television synopses taught me how to edit. I took the typescript out of the drawer mid 2005 and with a machete I slashed away the two extra stories, burnt-off the choking gorse of sequences that would curl you up, dredged the slurry that clogs good action: then did it all again on hard copy rather than the screen. Amazing the difference between screen prose and printed prose. The final story is 99,500 words, a good ‘commercial length’. Gross time span? Give-or-take: three years.

  • BB: A great deal of research must have been required, not least because the story is spread across three continents and several 'worlds'. Did you enjoy the research? Are you a seasoned traveller?

GB: I love travel: it inspires me. I take the car out after my morning’s work, this inspires and relaxes me. I relish long journeys. If I’m not driving (Europe) I will be looking out of the window of plane, train, ship. I never write - use a laptop or tablet - in transit.

I am excellent at research, no boast. Research is an ability that cannot be taught: you can do it or you can’t. It is like being a police inspector, a scientist and a pathologist - of Historical events rather than corpses - rolled into one; a methodical process that many find tedious that involves in-depth analysis.

The Arthur Moreau Story contains ‘static’ research, that is information ready to hand, from my own library, or locally. This can be scenery, pictures in books, photographs of previous travels, rather than setting off on a specifically aimed GBWT: GB Writing Tour. The amount of research a story demands depends upon genre. If your main character is Elizabeth the First (of England) you need to get into her mind and know what she liked, hated, wore, said, did. If you are a busy writer, you will probably need to hire a professional researcher. So far I do all my own.

  • BB: Where and how do you write? With or without music?

GB: I write in my studio, here at Silverdale (a village in north Lancashire). I have always been used to a studio, rather than a study. The room is full of tables, photographic lamps, objects of inspiration, the walls are hung with my drawings and designs. I surround myself with items that interest me. Two bookshelves contain works of reference, my library is in another part of the house. I keep records of all I write, and all inspirational material, in wire filing trays that are always visible and ready to riffle-through. You will find glasses by a young artist bought in Venice in 1981 ... loads of road maps ... the ancient 78 rpm gramophone record of Only a Rose and Love Me Tonight, sung by Winnie Melville and Derek Oldham (WMDO) so important in The Arthur Moreau Story ... prehistoric flint tools ... collections of old post cards ... lots of tat. My studio evolves where I am. A studio is nomadic, a study is not.

I write on a PC, using Word for Windows 7, a simple, internationally recognised electronic writing tool. I write from around 8-30 a.m. to - usually - 1 p.m. I aim to create, each session between 800 and 1,800 good words. When I say ‘good’ I mean publishable words, subject to my editing and the eye of a professional editor.

800 - 1,800 good words does not sound much, but you have to remember that every session demands my full creative power. An average of four hours a day at top whack is the equivalent of a full working day in an office. You get fatigued. Maybe twice a month I take a full day off when I will go to the Lake District. Not everybody has a world class beauty spot on their doorstep. I write seven days a week.

It’s not everybody’s cup of tea! Writing involves relentless discipline. Socialising doesn’t mix well. This is why I like dropping-in at a pub after my working morning: you keep in touch with folk. Easy to become a recluse, especially when my imagination does not need people to feed it.

I never write with music, or any distraction. There’s me, my creative energy, the desire to tell a story, staying power and the puritanical integrity of a true artist.

  • BB: You've got one wish: what's it to be?

GB: To live on Capri and write superb stories that are enjoyed all over the world.

  • BB: What's next for Guy Booth?

GB: People that enjoy The Arthur Moreau Story constantly ask me where Moreau came from. ‘Does it matter?’ I reply. Apparently, it does. I find myself writing a sequel to the story - the unusual angle came to me on a walk and I was fascinated: a good sign. I’m not giving anything away; you will have to read it. At the moment the story is 98% complete and will be published this year. Up until May, 2012, commencing January a year since, I was writing a more complex novel: Epic in scale. This will be completed by Spring, 2014: and more to come.

  • BB: That sounds like a very full life, Guy. Thank you for making the time to chat to us.

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MrsWilcock said:

Fabulous interview. My husband and I were at university in Liverpool (the best for Architecture then) with Guy in the 70's and lived in the same building with him in London in the 80's. The three of us were close. The book sounds amazing and a tribute to his extraordinary personality. We have not met for 30 years; life gets in the way.